There are only two places in Canada where the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly  (TCB) persists in the wild. Last spring (2020), caterpillars of this species were released by WPC into Helliwell Provincial Park on Hornby Island in BC for the first time, with the goal of re-establishing a population there to help secure the species. We know that some of these released caterpillars reached adulthood as more than 70 Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies were seen in the park in May 2020. This spring, we returned to Helliwell to try to confirm whether those adults were able to successfully breed in the wild and produce the next generation of their species.

In early March (2021), I travelled to Hornby Island in the Gulf as part of my job with WPC. I was there to look for caterpillars – small, black fuzzy ones specifically. A team of people, including many of our partners on the project, took it in turns to monitor Helliwell Provincial Park for these tiny animals, looking for signs of success.

Even though I’ve spent a year learning about them, caring for them, and breeding the next generation, I’ve never seen Taylor’s checkerspot’s native habitat. Helliwell is an impressive place, with high rocky bluffs that fall away into a beautiful stretch of ocean and mountains in the distance. On top of the bluffs, a maritime meadow exists with a diversity of grasses and small meadow plants. As you move inland from the bluff edge, the meadow gives way to a Garry Oak forest including oaks, firs, and dramatic arbutus trees. What really struck me is the rich biodiversity of the place.

 

A sea lion takes a break from snacking on herring to come up for air. Noisy rafts of sea lions and many seals were feasting along the shores of Hornby Island while I was there.

At the base of Helliwell’s bluffs, the herring were spawning along the shore, which caused quite a ruckus among the sea lions and seals. A family of otters were there, making trips from the shoreline and each returning with a fish in their grasp. Bald eagles in family groups joined in the feast, along with mergansers, long-tailed and harlequin ducks, gulls, widgeons, black oyster-catchers and a host of other birds. 

 

The first snake of spring was this small garter snake, out basking in the early March sun on Helliwell Provincial Park’s bluff trails. This snake shares the excellent sea-side views of its habitat with a diverse set of animals.

Up on top of Helliwell’s bluffs, the warm sun started to bring some of spring’s first land animals. Spiders, bees and beetles began to move over the grasses, and a small garter snake was basking in a particularly warm nook of the trail. A little further back from the bluffs, red squirrels noisily chased each other around tree trunks, and pileated woodpeckers with their bright red heads were vying for territory along the forest edge. In among the trees a black-tailed deer watched me while searching for the tenderest spring grass.

 

As the maritime meadow warms up, a surge of fresh green vegetation emerges under the dried grasses from last year, and the first spring flowers pop open to attract early-awakening insects.

 There was another animal in Helliwell that was pretty thrilled about springtime – the humans. So many residents and visitors of Hornby Island were taking the opportunity to enjoy the sunshine and the beautiful surroundings by walking the trails along Helliwell’s bluffs. Many of these people asked if I had lost something, since I was wandering slowly, staring at the ground and stopping to inspect things. Once I explained that I hadn’t really lost anything, though I was hoping to find some caterpillars, people were generally very enthusiastic about the mission. All of the people I spoke to were proud of this beautiful and biodiverse place, and keen to share how special it is.

Now, all of this springtime activity didn’t distract me entirely from my mission. I walked and looked and searched and crouched and peered for many hours. Other members of the Taylor’s checkerspot team spent a lot of time doing the same.

In the spring, Taylor’s checkerspot caterpillars are known to spend time basking in the sunshine in warm spots such as patches of dark soil or on top of sticks. We spent our search efforts walking through Helliwell Provincial Park when conditions were right – anytime the sun was shining and the temperature rose above 10 degrees Celsius. We search high and low (but mostly low, since these caterpillars spend all of their time very close to the ground.)

Despite our efforts, we were not able to locate any Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly caterpillars this spring. While this was disappointing, it doesn’t mean they weren’t there – remember that the caterpillars are only slightly larger than a tic-tac in March, and that the search area covered many hectares. It’s possible that some small, fuzzy black caterpillars were just out of sight under a leaf, or within a tuft of grasses. Next spring, we will look again, because we want to have proof that these animals are able to breed and survive the winter in their habitat on Helliwell.

In the meantime, if there are a few fuzzy Taylor’s checkerspot caterpillars hiding in the park, they won’t be alone for long, since I’ve spent the past year breeding and raising the next generation that will be released there. Reinforcements are on the way!

Michelle Polley

Endangered Species Technician – Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly

Michelle is a Conservation Biologist and Field Naturalist with a special interest in Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) and Herpetiles (reptiles and amphibians). Currently, she is the technician of WPC’s Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly program in Abbotsford, BC. She has worked with conservation projects for species at risk such as monarch butterflies and the turtles of Ontario.